I’m becoming increasingly frustrated by writers whose style is characterized to a large extent by what we might call argument by diktat, or the Christopher Hitchens style of argument. That is, they make pronouncements in a tone that presumes agreement; the reasons, never given, are supposed to be obvious; insidiously, the effect is to imply erudition and insight on the part of the pronouncer and those who agree, and ignorance, obtuseness, bad faith, or all three on the part of those who disagree.
Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Reading Bloom’s chapter on poetry. Fun but also frustrating, as he makes pronouncements which he does not substantiate. Either you take him on faith, feeling inferior for not being as smart as he is, or you simply wonder how he arrived at his conclusions, or … In any case not a satisfying sense of understanding.
He reads “The Unquiet Grave” as concluding with the implication that the dead woman will grant her living lover the kiss he craves. Here’s the poem:
This is a response to a negative review of Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems by August Kleinzahler, first published in Poetry April 2004, which I happened across while browsing the Poetry Foundation website.
I’ll leave Garrison Keillor for others to dissect. I’d rather talk about William Carlos Williams. Kleinzahler quotes the well known passage from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” that ends,
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Kleinzahler takes issue with the idea, writing, “A pretty sentiment, to be sure, but simply untrue, as anyone who has been to the supermarket or ballpark recently will concede. Ninety percent of adult Americans can pass through this life tolerably well, if not content, … without having a poem read to them by Garrison Keillor or anyone else.” Continue reading
From the mid-1990s.
I’m sitting on the bus spacing out. It’s a cold wet November morning. I’ve got a book open in my lap but I’m staring out the window. The 48’s stopped at 23rd and Union, heading towards the U–another day of office hours, teaching, trying to do research. Still waking up.
A guy in a black cap comes out of the MiniMart with a cup of coffee in his hand and a newspaper under his arm. He sees the bus and starts that funny scuttling run people do when they have their hands full and they’re trying to catch the bus. He glances right, sizing up the traffic in the opposite lanes, then to his left to see what’s closest. All clear. He scurries into the street, a sheepish grin on his face. I wonder if I should point him out to the driver. People are still climbing on; he’s not watching the street yet. I’ve been this guy dozens of times, yelling to get the driver’s attention, hoping I don’t get run over. He makes it across the southbound lanes and steps across the yellow line.
Here’s an essay on what we think we know and why we shouldn’t be so sure. After I wrote it I read and enjoyed Jonah Lehrer’s piece “The Truth Wears Off: The Decline Effect and the Scientific Method” in the New Yorker, which explores similar themes. As an aside, this essay might help explain why I was a lot less inclined than many of my lefty friends to mock Donald Rumsfeld for his famous “known unknowns” remark, though I did appreciate the rendering of that remark into free verse.
In 1813, the noted ornithologist John James Audubon witnessed a phenomenon that has become legendary, both for its size and for its somber lesson: the passing of a flock of passenger pigeons. It lasted for three days and nights, stretching from one horizon to the other, darkening the sky like an eclipse. Branches and small trees broke under their weight, and many were crushed by those that landed above them. Their poop fell like snow. These flocks were “more like storm systems than assemblages of birds,” writes William Souder in Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America. They inspired a gargantuan slaughter by the farmers and recreational hunters of antebellum America, one that continued for decades until the species was nearly extinct, no longer able to sustain itself. The last one died in a zoo in 1914.
One spring evening many years ago I stood in the balcony in a bar in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, waiting for the next act in the Seattle Improvised Music Festival to begin. Two percussionists laid brass gamelan keys, blocks of wood, glass bottles, a metal sheet and assorted other objects on the floor next to an antique washing machine. This was a large enamel tub with a spindle in the center driven by an electric motor. Jutting out from the top of the spindle was a short wooden arm, to the end of which a piece of string was attached, and at the end of the string was a small hard rubber ball. As the spindle turned the arm the string yanked the ball around, and the ball bounced against the deeply resonant enamel walls of the tub. The turning of the spindle and the shape of the tub gave the sound its regularity, its pattern, while the play of the string and the bounciness of the ball gave it its random quality. It was never quite clear from moment to moment if the machine would keep the beat or change it, but it always seemed to return to some fundamental ur-rhythm, not an actual rhythm but a potential for many rhythms. The musicians improvised with this lunatic metronome, using mallets on the things they had laid out next to it. The biggest challenge they faced was not to fall into any set rhythm, but instead to respect the irregularities of their guiding instrument—to listen carefully, not to let their playing become stereotyped, but constantly to hover around the edges of rhythm, maintaining the tension between the ear’s desire for pattern and the arbitrary fluctuations of the apparatus. It was one of the most lucid demonstrations I have ever witnessed of that basic tension in all art, between the desire for order and the demands of the contingent, whether in the world at large or in the materiality of its medium.